For decades, the towering sequoia across from Macy's that sparkled with lights every December was a celebrated holiday icon — downtown Seattle's Christmas tree.

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For decades, the towering sequoia across from Macy’s that sparkled with lights every December was a celebrated holiday icon — downtown Seattle’s Christmas tree.

But after Westlake Center was built, the sequoia was upstaged, replaced by a new ceremonial tree at the nearby mall’s plaza.

Now the old sequoia is in trouble.

Cramped in a foot and a half of rooting soil where it was transplanted in 1973 at the intersection of Fourth Avenue, Stewart Street and Olive Way, the tree is filled with dead branches. Its top 10 feet were sheared off in a 2006 windstorm, and despite emergency TLC in recent days, officials are worried that it might not survive.

The city hired an internationally known tree expert, James Urban, of Maryland, to look at the tree, which is estimated to be 50 years old. To Urban, who inspected the tree in late March, sequoias are “one of the most revered living objects in the planet,” capable of living hundreds of years, he said.

Urban dug holes around the sequoia to check the soil. He found the tree is growing in just 18 inches of rooting soil, and that the soil below that is compacted and receiving too little oxygen. That’s why the tree is in a rest mode and unable to grow, he said, and why there are spaces between the branches.

He recommended that the surface soil be aerated and compost added to try to force the roots down.

Seattle’s Department of Transportation, which is caring for the tree, did that last week, digging 3-foot holes around the tree and filling them with compost, then topping it off with organic material that had been salvaged from healthy trees of the same species.

If that seems to help, the department said it will repeat the steps next year or the year after.

The department said the question is whether the tree can survive at all in its current environment of pavement and car exhaust. According to a plaque at the tree’s base, it was planted at the site by the Seattle Chamber of Commerce and dedicated to the memory of John M. Jewett, who died in 1971. He had served as the city’s first Seafair commandant.

No one is monitoring the tree closer than Queen Anne resident Eric Greenberg, who said he has been decorating and lighting the sequoia every winter since officials at Westlake Center turned their attention to the tree at the mall’s plaza.

He adopted the sequoia, he said, because he grew up in upstate New York, where his town lighted a tree every year on the village green. “It was a tradition the whole town got around, and I brought that tradition with me,” he said. “That’s my motivation.”

Greenberg is convinced that starlings living in the branches are causing its demise, but Urban said that isn’t true — that trees adapt to birds. Urban thinks giving the tree its best shot might mean ripping up the pavement around it and doubling the amount of soil it’s in.

That could be expensive, he acknowledged. “But the investment to keep it going is minor compared to the value it gives back to the community.”

Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or sgilmore@seattletimes.com